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24th Feb 2024

Feature

Is Europe sleeping on the roll-out of night trains?

  • Night trains in Europe are making a comeback after significant route reductions in the 1990s. Now, not only train nerds but also the EU institutions and green travellers are showing renewed interest (Photo: Novaya Gazeta Europe)
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In recent years, Europe experienced a train renaissance. Increasingly, passengers are choosing the rails, and the development of train lines is supported by the European Commission. The eagerly awaited launch of the Brussels-Berlin route via Amsterdam by European Sleeper back in May 2023 highlighted this trend.

Train journeys don't only offer an environmentally friendly alternative to air travel but can also provide convenience for travellers. Choosing an overnight train can help save on hotel expenses and streamline travel from airports to city centers. However, expanding night train services may present challenges due to bureaucratic processes and the need to ensure a viable return on investment.

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An EUobserver correspondent recently embarked on a journey aboard the new night train from Berlin to Brussels, and sheds light on the factors that attract passengers to this route and the obstacles faced by night trains across Europe.

One night to Brussels

Navigating the sprawling multi-story Berlin Hauptbahnhof can be a challenge for newcomers. However, luck is on my side as I easily locate the platform for my train bound for Brussels. My train leaves at 22:56 and half an hour before departure people start to congregate on the platform — a line of 30-40 people stretching along the edge of it. A group of students with large hiking backpacks over their shoulders. A couple — a guy and a girl, holding hands, occasionally kissing, probably for goodbye.

I'm originally from Russia, where traveling by overnight train is not considered unusual. After all, it is one of the most common and cost-effective ways to travel between the capital Moscow and St Petersburg, a route I have taken more than once. However, when it comes to travelling in Europe, I have always opted for planes. For my journey from Berlin, I could have chosen a Ryanair flight, which would take only an hour and a half and cost around €50. Selecting a train that would take over 11 hours and cost approximately €150 per bed would thus appear somewhat illogical.

My train to Brussels arrives. The route was launched a month ago, but the rolling stock looks pretty old and some carriages are different from each other. The discongruence seems like some kind of mistake, but the company logo on the locomotive and wagons dispel any doubts.

Night trains in Europe are making a comeback after significant route reductions in the 1990s due to the popularity of fast and cheap air travel and public investment in high-speed day trains. But time changes. A few years ago, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg urged people to switch from planes to trains (there is even a social movement known as 'flight shame'). Now, not only train enthusiasts but also European institutions and travellers are showing renewed interest in mass train travel.

All the compartments in my carriage are occupied. European Sleeper offers three accommodation options.

Firstly, there are budget-friendly seated compartments designed to accommodate six people.

Secondly, a more comfortable option, which is my choice, consists of sleeping compartments with six beds.

Lastly, there is the Deluxe sleeper carriage, where each compartment can accommodate up to three people and includes a washbasin.

When I enter the compartment, it looks a little different from the pictures on the website. Instead of six shelves, the compartment has two top shelves and two seats designed for six people.

Joining me on this journey are three passengers — two girls and a woman around 60 years old. Since it is the first time for all of us traveling on the European Sleeper, we spend about five minutes attempting to locate the ladder in the compartment that leads to the upper shelves. It feels like a mini quest, as there is no clear instruction indicating its whereabouts (a small icon on the compartment wall offers little guidance).

As we search, we make an exciting discovery — the lower seats are actually foldable into the two lower berths. Hidden beneath the backrest of one of them, we find a collapsible ladder that needs to be secured to the window.

Almost immediately after we complete this task, conductor Sarah enters the compartment. She tells us about the route and asks at which station each of us will get off. In addition to the final point in Brussels, the train makes several other stops in the Netherlands and Belgium. All of us, except for one passenger who travels to Amsterdam, get off in Brussels.

The train starts moving. Our trip begins.

Green journeys

Boosting passenger traffic on trains is one of the goals of the 2019 European Green Deal, an initiative aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels. According to Greenpeace data, trains emit about five times less CO2 emissions than planes on the same route, and sometimes even less. For instance, a flight from Paris to Amsterdam produces 10 times more CO2 per passenger than the train (119kg CO2 per passenger by plane vs 11.5kg CO2 per passenger by train).

The same study by Greenpeace shows that 34 percent of the 150 busiest flight routes in the EU can be replaced with train journeys under 6 hours. 27 percent of these routes already had direct night trains alternatives in 2021.

To reduce CO2 emissions, some countries are considering reducing domestic flights for short distances. For example, France recently banned domestic flights that can be replaced by a train ride of up to 2.5 hours.

While this new law sets a precedent in Europe, its true impact is more symbolic. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the French government's bailout package for Air France mandated the elimination of short-haul domestic flights, affecting routes such as Paris to Nantes, Lyon, and Bordeaux. Similar measures were taken in Austria, resulting in the cancellation of a popular flight from Vienna to Salzburg.

Ladder that allows train passengers to climb onto the upper shelves. (Photo: Daria Kozlova)

Passengers themselves are increasingly opting for trains over airplanes. One of my fellow passengers on European Sleeper, a young woman named Valentine, says that she always takes the train if she can because she loves this kind of traveling and wants to travel with less environmental impact. Valentine lives in Paris where she works as a financial journalist. Currently, she is journeying back home after a holiday in Poland (she needed to change three trains to get to Poland). She had already completed the initial leg of her trip home by train, arriving in Berlin on the day our train departed for Brussels.

Another passenger in my compartment, the older woman, Margo (she asked to change her name) doesn't like planes either.

"I take planes only if it's not possible to get to the place with an alternative way," says Margo. "There are a lot of reasons why I don't like planes. They need a lot of fuel so it's bad for nature. Also I don't like the process of plane traveling."

This trend is confirmed not only by my modest sample of respondents, but also by statistics. Eurocontrol data reveals a significant decrease in domestic flights, with Lithuania and Germany experiencing a 38 percent reduction in 2022 compared to 2019, while Finland witnessed a decline of 35 percent.

This trend is consistent across the continent. Similar figures could be seen in Austria, UK, Sweden, etc. At the same time, according to Eurostat, in 2022, the level of tourism in the EU has almost returned to pre-pandemic levels. Eurocontrol explains the drop in flights by measures to popularise trains.

For example, Germany conducted an experiment in 2022 and introduced a monthly public transport ticket for the summer months for public transport, including trains, for €9 (the offer was carried out due to record inflation). Despite the fact that cheap tickets have become a challenge for the German transport system due to their popularity, they did reduce CO2 emissions.

Spain invested more than €700m on a free-ticket scheme.

The number of international short-haul flights is also gradually declining, with a 16.7 percent decrease in 2022 compared to the last pre-pandemic year of 2019. This year, the trend may also be affected by air travel prices. It is expected that they will grow significantly due to the rise in fuel prices as a result of Russia's war against Ukraine.

Compliance with climate laws also affects the rise in flight prices. Under European rules, aviation must become more eco-friendly, which incurs increased costs for airlines

However, despite these changes, air traffic in Europe is projected to continue growing, with an anticipated annual increase of four percent starting from 2025. This highlights the need for EU countries to adopt proactive measures to encourage the transition of passengers from planes to trains.

Long haul

I wake up quite early in the morning, before our train leaves for Amsterdam. I watch how the girl from the top shelf, who was getting off here, collects her things. The conductor brings her breakfast — a bun with butter and jam in a European Sleeper branded package and coffee. Our food will be brought to us a little later, as we pass Rotterdam.

European Sleeper made its debut in May of this year. The launch had been eagerly anticipated by travellers. The startup company was established in 2021 by entrepreneurs Elmer van Buuren and Chris Engelsman. Initially, it had announced plans to commence a night train service between Brussels and Prague, with stops in Amsterdam and Berlin, as early as spring 2022. The launch dates were since then postponed multiple times. The line didn't fully open in the spring of 2023, with trains to Prague via Dresden not scheduled to run until March 2024.

Sleeper compartment on the European Sleeper train. The ticket price includes mineral water and breakfast. (Photo: Daria Kozlova)

In an interview with EUobserver, Chris Engelsman, co-founder of European Sleeper, revealed that the idea for launching a night train service stemmed from recognising the dire lack of such options in Europe. Environmental concerns also played a significant role. It wasn't just about sustainability though. Engelsman explained that night trains offer an efficient way to travel, allowing passengers to save daytime hours by utilising travel time during the night. Additionally, train stations typically require less time for check-ins compared to airports.

"We don't want to tell people that they shouldn't fly or they should take the night train. We want to introduce a way of traveling that can compete in a positive way," Engelsman stated.

Bringing this concept to life proved to be challenging for the entrepreneurs. Despite overnight train travel once being commonplace in Europe, they faced obstacles in launching the route. The scarcity of available and modern sleeping carriages posed a first significant hurdle.

Another major challenge was obtaining international timetables. Engelsman highlighted that train schedules in Europe are typically created at the national level, necessitating extensive efforts to adapt them for international travel. Bureaucracy further complicated the processes, with each country enforcing different procedures and regulations. For instance, while international trains had the highest priority in Belgium, they had the lowest priority in the Netherlands.

A month and a half after the launch of the Brussels-Berlin line, European Sleeper has been performing well. Engelsman acknowledged that not all trains have achieved full profitability yet, but summer bookings have yielded promising results. While exact figures remain undisclosed, Engelsman expressed optimism, stating that people need time to adjust and discover their preferred booking methods. Looking ahead, European Sleeper plans to expand its network southward, connecting Amsterdam and Brussels to destinations in the south of France and Barcelona, following the final launch of the Brussels-Prague line.

More difficult than planes

European Sleeper joins the ranks of companies venturing into the night train business, following in the footsteps of Snälltåget, a Swedish operator offering sleeper trains connecting Malmö to Berlin, as well as Innsbruck in Austria. RegioJet operates in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Leading the market is Nightjets by Austrian ÖBB, which made its debut in 2016 and has since expanded its operations. Presently, according to a spokesman for the company, ÖBB operates 20 lines across Europe, and they have ambitious plans for further growth. The demand for night trains is evident, with ÖBB reporting that their Nightjets served an impressive 1.5 million passengers in 2022.

The numbering of the wagons is indicated on the door. (Photo: Daria Kozlova)

While night train travel gains traction, some routes have faced discontinuation. The Eurostar ski train, previously linking London with French Alps ski resorts during the winter season, was suspended due to Brexit-related concerns and heightened border checks. Similarly, Spanish operator Refne had to cancel their night Trenhotel trains connecting Spain, Portugal, and France, citing a lack of profitability, exacerbated by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

These challenges encountered by European Sleeper and Trenhotel are not unique but rather exemplify the common obstacles faced by operators when launching cross-border night train services in a dynamic and evolving market.

According to Mark Smith, the founder of travel portal The Man in Seat 61, the bureaucratic hurdles involved in launching a new rail line surpass those of starting a new airplane flight. Each country that the train will pass through requires separate approval for the rolling stock, with varying requirements across borders. The approval process is lengthy and intricate.

Furthermore, while the aircraft leasing market is well-developed, the sleeping carriages leasing market in Europe is virtually non-existent. This poses an additional challenge for operators in acquiring the necessary equipment.

Profitability proves to be another obstacle. Smith, along with Alexander Gomme, spokesperson for Back-on-Track Belgium, a European network supporting cross-border passenger train traffic, concur that making night trains financially viable is challenging. Sleeping carriages can only accommodate a limited number of passengers, typically around 20-30, compared to day trains that can cater to 70-80 travellers. Operating during nighttime necessitates higher wages for staff, contributing to increased transportation costs. Moreover, the longer distances covered by night trains result in higher track usage fees for the operators. Consequently, launching a new line requires significant investment from multiple stakeholders willing to commit substantial funds to the project.

Railroad operators in several countries, such as Germany, Belgium, and Spain, have been gradually reducing their night train projects due to profitability challenges persisting over a long period of time. The construction of new sleeper carriages has been scarce since the mid-2000s, apart from exceptions like the carriages of the RZD trains from Moscow to Paris and Nice prior to COVID-19 and the war. Alexander Gomme attributes the decline of overnight routes to a lack of market regulation and government support. In his view the situation could be changed if there will be a European public organisation or even a new European railway company that can provide a network of international trains.

Across Europe with glass of wine

I arrive in Brussels half an hour late, at 11 o'clock in the morning. On the platform, we hastily leave the car. Brussels-South railway station (Brussels-Zuid/Midi) is now the busiest station in Belgium. Trains to Antwerp, Amsterdam, Paris, Luxembourg, Frankfurt and other cities run from here. It is located practically in the centre of the city, so getting from the railway station to my apartment is not hard.

For international trains, Brussels-Zuid/Midi is the main stop (Brussels-North and Brussels-Central are designed more for domestic destinations and don't serve high-speed international trains). However, besides the European Sleeper, there is only one other night train, Nightjet by ÖBB, that connects Brussels with Germany and Austria.

Train passengers are preparing for their arrival in Brussels. (Photo: Daria Kozlova)

The night train market experiences minimal competition, as Smith points out, with each company catering to its own niche market. Unlike day trains that face competition from private and public companies on the same routes, as well as from high-speed trains, night trains typically operate under a single company on specific routes.

Looking ahead, the number of night train routes is expected to grow, supported by the involvement of the EU. At the beginning of the year, the European Commission and European Railways Agency selected 10 pilot projects for new railway connections between major European cities to receive support. This includes initiatives like Midnight Trains' upcoming project between Paris, Milan, and Venice, as well as Flixtrain's new service connecting Munich and Zurich, among others.

Smith highlights the favourable conditions already present in Europe to popularise and expand rail transportation. With comprehensive rail coverage in almost all European countries, traveling to small towns is often easier by train than by plane. This creates a strong foundation to promote and enhance rail travel throughout the continent.

In addition to preserving the environment, experts highlight other benefits of traveling by train. Firstly, night trains are good for the economy: they can serve multiple cities, including smaller ones, contributing to their economic growth and development. Also they can utilise existing railway infrastructure, decreasing the need for significant new investments.

Secondly, they are more friendly for passengers: train stations usually have minimal screening procedures and are located in city centres so you don't need to spend time and money for the road from the airport. Also you can bring more luggage without paying extra fees and travel with pets. Thirdly, overnight train travel can help save money on hotel expenses, particularly when you are exploring different European destinations.

On the downside, it's difficult for travellers to plan a trip right now. As Smith notes, you have to put a lot of time and effort into it because there is no single platform for trains to find and buy tickets now (the ones that do exist do not cover all European countries). For air travel, in contrast, multiple platforms allow people to easily create routes with several connections.

That said, as Smith notes, overnight trains can compete with high-speed trains because their speed doesn't always make the trip the most optimal option.

"A high-speed train from Berlin to Paris takes eight hours. While this is much faster than it would take to travel between these cities on an overnight train, it's clear that it's not the optimal option. It would be much more convenient to leave in the evening and go to bed, then arrive in the morning and wake up," Smith notes. "Actually commuting is a lovely experience. I love lying in bed listening to the sound of steel wheels on steel rails beneath me and reading a good book for the glow of my little berth light, preferably with a glass of wine. It's great fun and it's convenient and it's affordable".

Author bio

Daria Kozlova, correspondent at independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta Europe, and currently a resident journalist at EUobserver.

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